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Maine Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree in the House during the swearing in. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Women make national history in Maine politics

Article By Ramona du Houx

February 13th, 2009

Despite the gloom of the recession, there was an atmosphere of excitement and optimism as the new 124th legislators took oaths of office. There were no illusions about the difficult tasks facing the state, but with the chambers filled with new members, voted in on a wave of change that swept the nation, there is also hope.

The national campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton inspired millions around the world. In the United States record numbers of citizens aged 18 to 35 voted for the first time. Many of Maine’s newly elected legislators have been influenced by this presidential cycle and are waiting for their opportunity to be able to help bring change to Maine.

“It is a season of change,” said Governor John Baldacci, before he gave the oath of office to members of the Senate. “Change is coming from Washington, Augusta, and statehouses across the country.”

It’s doubtful any new bills that require funding but don’t provide funding mechanisms in their proposals will pass. These are days that require creative thinking, working together, and building upon the state’s strengths.

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Maine Speaker of the House of Representatives Hannah Pingree being sworn in. Photo by Ramona du Houx

The new president of the Senate, Libby Mitchell, and the new speaker of the House, Hannah Pingree, talked about finding creative measures that need to be brought to the table to help the state become more self-sufficient in the areas of energy and food, while growing the state’s economy.

“The energy shock of the late 1970s pushed Maine to lead the nation in energy-saving and energy-independence measures. Then gas prices fell, we forgot about the problem, and we were caught off guard as history repeated itself earlier this year and fuel prices shot up again,” said Mitchell. “Gas prices and interest rates have fallen once again. But we cannot let the opportunity slip through our hands. The speaker and I plan to introduce an order establishing a special Joint Select Committee on Energy. This committee will harness the talents of legislators from both bodies, who will work together and identify opportunities to advance a greener Maine.”

 

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Governor Baldacci shakes hands with the newly elected Rep. Alex Cornell du Houx. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Creating opportunities from adversity was also called upon by Pingree in the House. She sighted a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report that showed 13 percent of Maine families don’t have enough food to feed their families regularly.

“This is simply unacceptable,” she said. “Despite the huge economic challenges, I believe we have tremendous opportunities before us.”

In her speech to the House, Pingree referred to Russell Libby, the head of the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, who said that Maine sends $6 billion a year out of state for the energy we consume and $5 billion a year out of state for the food we consume.

“Imagine if we focus this session on diverting just 10 percent of our food and energy spending to Maine sources. That is more than a billion dollars that would be spent on our Maine farmers and fishermen, on alternative energy jobs and income, or your local woodsman. It is money that would stay in our community and multiply, strengthening not only our local businesses but also the communities that depend on those businesses,” said Pingree.

“Whether we focus on processing our lobsters and blueberries in state, creating a regulatory environment and new incentives to encourage massive new production of renewable energy, or on feeding our families with the products of Maine farmers — we can bring these billions of dollars back to Maine. With the right roadmap, by the time our freshmen members are finishing their final term, Maine could be generating more power and energy than we need. Our farmers could be feeding Maine and New England.”

 

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Congresswoman Chellie Pingree listens to her daughter, Hannah- Maine’s new Speaker of the House. Photo by Ramona du Houx

These innovative ideas are what the state needs to move the state and the nation forward.

For these are times that call for the Maine spirit of working together to find new solutions, as Governor John Baldacci said in his remarks to the House.

“These are very difficult times facing our state and the nation,” said Baldacci. “In Maine, we put people above politics. We will need all our talents combined to ensure that Maine successfully weathers this economic storm and comes out stronger.”

The governor had just returned from a meeting of the nation’s governors with President-elect Obama. “As President-elect Obama stated to the nation’s governors yesterday, we will need to adopt the best ideas, regardless of what corner of the political spectrum they come from.”

Women make national history in Maine politics.

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Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Maine Sen. President Libby Mitchell, and Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Two days after Barack Obama announced that Sen. Hillary Clinton would become his secretary of state, women in Maine were also making national history.

Senator Elizabeth Mitchell became the first woman in the United States to have been selected to serve first as House Speaker and now as Senate president. Mitchell has served in the Legislature for 22 years off and on since 1974.

“I’m humbled, honored and challenged,” said Mitchell, who went on the say in her address to the Senate, “In Maine a young woman cannot only dream of becoming anything she wants to be, but she can actually achieve it. To be sure, the election of women to positions of leadership was not easy. We are where we are today because Maine people put results before prejudices, talent before convention, and a dedication to Maine people over the shackles of the past.”

It also is the first time in the state’s history that both of Mine’s legislative chambers are being led by women. The speaker of the House is now Rep. Hannah Pingree.

“The glass ceiling in Maine is being shattered,” said Maine’s chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Leigh Ingalls Saufley, during her remarks at a welcoming legislative dinner. “It’s an historic year for women in Maine.”

Saufley was referring to Mitchell and Pingree and the news that Janet Mills, who represented Farmington, will be Maine’s first woman attorney general, as well as to Chellie Pingree who will become Maine’s first woman U.S. House Representative.

Mills worked as the district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin, and Oxford counties for almost 15 years and was president of the Maine Prosecutors Association for four years.

“It’s great to see things moving forward,” said Mills. “It’s wonderful for every girl growing up in the state of Maine. I love it.” A special election will be held to fill her House seat..

The speaker of the House echoed the sentiment, “It is the year of the woman in Maine.” Pingree used to have the distinction of being one of the few young representatives serving in the House. That demography has also changed with an influx of members under 35 years old. The youngest is Henry Beck of Waterville at 22.

 

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Rep. Henry Beck of Waterville, Maine after being sworn into the 124th session. Photo by Ramona du Houx

“At the age of 32, believe it or not, I am the 12th youngest speaker in Maine history. Our youngest speaker, Hannibal Hamlin, was chosen for this prestigious post in 1837 at 27 years of age. He then went on to be a congressman, a U.S. senator, governor of Maine, and vice president of the United States under Abraham Lincoln. The honorable Mr. Hamlin set the bar a little high, if you ask me,” said Pingree in her acceptance speech. The new Speaker is the youngest woman to hold the position.

As a joint session concluded the first day of the newly elected bodies in the House Chambers, the scene looked like a true reflection of Maine’s population, from young legislators and their families to seasoned law makers, and women at the helm.